While the electrification of Ireland’s urban spaces did not begin in earnest until 1929 – and indeed, rurally some two decades later in 1946 – electricity, or rather, the electronic, now operates as a symbol for this island’s contemporary situation. Digital technologies dominate Ireland’s public and private spheres, permeating all aspects of cultural and socio-economic activity. Such circumstances should not be dismissed as merely the western world as it exists in late capitalism: it is especially significant that Ireland, functioning as a largely rural, agrarian, ecumenical society for much of its history, now sees its public and private spheres dominated by modern technologies and the entities which determine the conditions through which they are shared and experienced.
In editing Technology in Irish Literature and Culture for the Cambridge Themes in Irish Literature and Culture series, we are pleased to accept the dual invitation delivered by series editor Ronan McDonald, in his words, ‘to choose a significant issue that animates or perplexes contemporary Irish culture, and use it as an aperture through which to examine the literature of previous eras’. Our choice of subject is technology, a subject of fundamental significance to our current condition, and central to very many of our contemporary concerns, vexations, pleasures, and opportunities.
Crucially, technology shapes personal interactions, public spaces, institutions, and politics. It is a subject, then, whose temporal frame can appear mostly contemporaneous and occasionally prospective: that of discovery, innovation, and rupture. Yet, as Technology in Irish Literature and Culture demonstrates throughout, its literary genealogy is long and varied: technological opportunity is a subject plumbed and probed in the earliest of Irish literary works, just as technological inventions themselves have enabled Irish literature and its creative practitioners to adapt, diversify, experiment, and flourish, both in their choice of subject and in their public reach.
It is a curious feature of Irish literary scholarship, however, that relatively few comprehensive treatments of the subject of technology exist at present. Literature has long functioned as a tool for social understanding; turning its lens on technology can tell us much about Irishness in the context of the machine-induced cultural upheavals that formed and reformed our past and present, and that remain intrinsic to possible cultural futures. As demonstrated in Science, Technology, and Irish Modernism (2019) – one of the few such studies on the topic of technology – there has been substantial engagement between scientific and technological change and twentieth-century Irish literature, particularly modernism. But examining how authors have embraced technology as a theme is only part of the dynamic: it is important also to look at how technology operates on literature, acting as an inherent part of literary process, form, and aesthetic. This book does just that, analysing technologies which appear in Irish literature (theme), but also technologies of literature (technē), rearticulating the genealogical significance of technology to both the form and content of Irish writing: technology as material instrument and technology as thematic symbol.
For us as editors, curating this volume is also an act of recovery, an attempt to reclaim cultural authority from a simplistic ‘progress’ narrative and from the narrow prioritisation of disciplines of science and engineering without reference to, or recognition of, their humanistic core. In terms of historical antecedents, it is not surprising that a number of the essays in this volume concentrate on the period of the Irish Literary Revival, when comparable debates occurred as to the relevant standing of art, science, technology, and creativity. But the genealogies traced in this volume are longer and often unpredictable: the advent of new technologies can involve continuity as well as rupture, for example the long coexistence of script and print in modern Irish-language culture, or the overlapping histories of orature and technologies of sound. Conversely, the valorisation of narratives of technical progress and electronic connection by state and industry can be resisted powerfully and effectively by literary representations of disconnection and crisis, in a long tradition ranging from Jonathan Swift to Edna O’Brien, Stewart Parker, Mike McCormack, Anne Enright, and Sally Rooney.
The purpose of this book is not to rearticulate the importance of ‘the digital’ in an age and academy where computer-assisted ways of doing and being are becoming increasingly fetishised. Our aim as editors of Technology in Irish Literature and Culture is to show instead how technology has long – even in pre-digital contexts – had a major influence on the form and content of Irish writing, and to demonstrate how our present situation and literary storehouse is enabled by a long lineage of technological advancements and thematic assessments. The structure of the volume reflects this lineage, transitioning from print, the optical telegraph and gramophone to electricity and broadcasting, from science and invention to data and the digital, reckoning with the productive and social consequences of each new mode for Irish literature and culture. While ‘technology’ might at times be awkwardly expansive as a term, the emphasis in this collection is largely on communication and media technologies and related infrastructures, along with the cultures that surround their emergence and advancement. Through a historical lens that spans over a thousand years of artistic production, and that addresses the future – whether digital or post-digital – as imagined and foretold in literary works, our volume offers fresh perspectives on the discourses and modes through which technological impact is comprehended and deployed, interpreted and critiqued, feared and used.